June 2011


Today Larval Subjects hit two million vistors. Not bad for a blog that was started one night on a whim!

Over at Fractured Politics Kris Coffield has posted an interview with me. Kris asked really challenging and fantastic questions and my responses to his questions are a bit denser than some of my other interviews. There’s a lot of politics here, as well as discussions of the difference between the critical and the speculative turn, how the speculative turn builds on the critical turn, and epistemology. I’m really thankful that Chris gave me the opportunity to respond.

A couple hours ago I got off the phone with Tim Morton after having a terrific discussion about the ethical implications of object-oriented ontology and ecology. Tim remarked that the more we learn about ecology, the more ecologically aware we become, the more we discover that we are all ethical hypocrites. Here I’m reminded of a passage from Adorno’s Problems of Moral Philosophy. There Adorno remarks that,

This conception of ethics contrives to undercut the question that should form the basis of every deeper reflection on moral or ethical questions, namely the question whether culture, and whatever culture has become, permits something like the good life, or whether it is a network of institutions that actually tends more and more to thwart the emergence of such righteous living. (14)

The “conception of ethics” Adorno is here referring to is something like existentialism (as he understands it), where being ethical simply consists in acting according to what one already is. By contrast, Adorno wishes to draw attention to the sort of moral conflict between the world in which we live and our possibility of living a “righteous life”. What are we to do when the world in which we live itself prevents something like a righteous life?

From a eudaimonistic or virtue-ethics perspective, this deadlock would arise in a variety of ways. From the standpoint of eudaimonism or human flourishing, this realization would arise when we recognize that our social circumstances and conditions are such that 1) we are constitutively unable to achieve something like flourishing or eudaimonia in this world, and 2) that because of how we develop in our social world, because of how we our social world is put together, we a) don’t even know what flourishing would be, and b) have an incredibly distorted picture of flourishing. Here we have the core thesis around which Marx’s entire analysis of capitalism revolves. Conditions of production under capitalism are such that flourishing is impossible by virtue of the manner in which we become mere gears in a value-producing machine that undermines our own autonomy, that deskills and numbs us, and that where the commodity gives us an incredibly distorted picture of what flourishing would be, endlessly suggesting that it is the acquisition of this or that commodity that would provide us with the flourishing or actualization that I seek. “If only I had the iPad2, if only I had this or that exotic food, if only I had a McMansion, etc., I would achieve eudaimonia.”

As Marx argues, because we work under conditions of forced necessity, and because we are alienated from the products of our labor– yes, yes, I know, Marx later abandons the alienation thesis, yet this is still a valuable point to emphasize in understanding the dynamics of capitalism and why we should care about them –work comes to be seen as something outside life, something other than life, rather than as one aspect of life that contributes to our flourishing or eudaimonia. By contrast, life is now seen to unfold in the domain of whatever is not work, in whatever is outside work. The richness of life is thereby significantly devalued. Life now comes to consist in sleeping, eating, drinking, watching American Idol, etc. It becomes all those little snippets of enjoyment we can attain outside of work. As a consequence, “eudaimonia” becomes the acquisition of commodities and leisure rather than the actualization and cultivation of persons. In other words, within this social system we no longer even have a picture of what a virtuous or eudaimonistic life might be and everywhere we seem to feel as if there is something profoundly dissatisfying about this life without being able to determine what this source of dissatisfaction might be.

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Over at Dailykos, Chrislove has a hilarious diary on Bill Donohue’s meltdown over the NY gay marriage victory. This is, of course, the Bill Donohue of Catholic League fame who’s constantly bloviating on television about how Christians are oppressed because, well, they have to be tolerant of others in public or something. Donohue’s brilliant argument is that “the plug has to go in the socket! Apparently he’s missed the fact that there are a variety of different “sockets” and hands and feet to boot!

But my favorite part is when he worries that the human species will become extinct as a result of oh so hot gay sex. My friend Tim Richardson always likes to remind me of Lacan’s claim that the superego commands us to “Enjoy!” As Tim reads it, this entails that the Law doesn’t simply command obedience, but jouissance. In conservative types, this means that when there’s a law permitting something you actually HAVE to do that thing permitted. If it’s legal to own guns that means I’m commanded to buy as many guns as possible. If it’s legal to smoke I MUST smoke. And likewise, for Bill Donohue, if gay marriage is legal it must mean that all people have to get gay married.

My post on depression got me thinking once again about the difference between the psychoanalytic conception of the symptom and what might be called the psychotherapeutic conception of the symptom. In what I am here calling psychotherapeutic orientations the symptom is an impediment to enjoyment to be eradicated. Here my symptom is something from which I suffer, something alien that plagues me, something that prevents me from attaining satisfaction or that stands in the way of my satisfaction. While it is indeed true that we suffer from our symptoms, within a psychoanalytic framework my symptom is the source of my jouissance or enjoyment, and is constitutive of my being (in the case of neurosis and perversion; remember there is no “normal” for psychoanalysis) as a subject. In this regard, the eradication of my symptom would amount to my destruction, my disappearance, as a subject.

Here it’s necessary to qualify the term “jouissance“. The term “jouissance or enjoyment, in English, has connotations of pleasure. Yet within a psychoanalytic framework, jouissance is radically different than pleasure. Pleasure refers to a release of tension that occurs through some sort of act such as eating. With the attainment of pleasure I no longer repeat. After I have eaten my fill, I no longer wish to eat anymore. By contrast, we know we’re in the presence of jouissance when we encounter endless repetition. We know that eating has become a matter of jouissance not pleasure when we continue to compulsively eat even though we are no longer hungry. We know that sex has departed from the domain of pleasure and entered the domain of jouissance when we compulsively masturbate throughout the day, rather than getting it over in the morning and being done with it. Jouissance is the domain of repetition where we seem to encounter a rise and maintenance of a particular activity rather than its cessation.

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The other day Jeremy Trombley recommended Ronald Sandler’s Character and Environment in response to one of my posts on ethics. I am only about halfway through the book right now, but so far it is among the most thought provoking books I’ve read in quite a while. Not only does Sandler present a nice overview of virtue ethics or eudaimonistic ethical orientations, but it explores a number of issues central to object-oriented ethics (OOE) with respect to the ethical status of nonhuman entities.

My thoughts are still scattered at the moment– and my brain is scrambled from writing quite a bit today –but I was particularly surprised to discover Sandler exploring ethical issues arising as a result of mereology (though he doesn’t use the term) in chapter three of his book. Recall that within the framework of object-oriented ontology objects do not need to be simple in order to be objects. A simple entity would be an entity that can be decomposed no further. For OOO, by contrast, all objects are aggregates; which is to say that they are objects composed of other objects. As Harman puts it in Guerrilla Metaphysics, objects can equally be thought as both networks of relations and as wholes or entities in their own right. As networks of relations, objects are composed of relations among other objects. As wholes they are unities in their own right. Within the framework of OOO this gives rise to curious paradoxes pertaining to mereology. Mereology studies the relationships between wholes and parts. Insofar as objects 1) are both aggregates of other objects, and 2) are objects in their own right, and insofar as 3) objects are withdrawn from one another and independent of one another, we get a curious situation in which objects are both independent of the larger scale objects of which they are parts and in which they are independent of the smaller scale objects that compose them. In other words, the parts of another object are never exhausted by being parts of that other object. They are objects in their own right.

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Morton, Mark K-Punk and I have been having an interesting discussion on twitter regarding the treatment of mental disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, ADHD and others through the use of psychotropic drugs. K-Punk contends that psychotropics are over prescribed, that they fail to get at the real cause of these maladies, and points to things like the surprising effectiveness of placebos when treating maladies like depression. Morton contends that these maladies are real material entities, real chemical imbalances, points to the effectiveness of these drugs, and argues that claims that mental illness is “discursively constructed” have been used as apologies for closing down mental clinics. (A post on depressive and anxiety disorders, of course, requires The Scream. Incidentally, my four year old daughter, when recently encountering this painting, asked “what did he do after he screamed?” That’s one smart mini-cat!)

I think they’re both right and they’re both wrong. It seems to me that debates like this are governed by two binaries that both object-oriented ontology and developmental systems theory are designed to complicate, nuance, and displace. Between Tim and Mark we have, on the one hand, an opposition between naive realism (sorry Tim) and discursive constructivism (Mark). Here “maladies of the soul” are either materially real such that they are chemical imbalances in the brain or they are discursively and socially constructed such that they are not real. On the other hand, these maladies of the soul are either inborn and innate (Tim) or they are acquired and constructed (Mark). I am not doing full justice to either Tim or Mark’s position here and I’m certain they are more nuanced than this, but this oppositional grid at least has the virtue of bringing the contours of the public debate to the fore.

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